When “Can’t” means “Won’t”

Well known Calvinists, e.g., Jonathan Edwards were unable to make that simple observation when it came to God’s nature.  Failing to distinguish between His ontology and His moral attributes he interpreted “God is love” as an ontological attribute.  In other words he reduced the Divine Perfections to cause and effect.  Process theologian Thomas Jay Oord’s latest book “God Can’t” reveals a similar blurring of that all important distinction.  It has been his contention that  Pentecostalism needed process thought for philosophical justification.  That he does not consider other possiblities for the meaning of “cannot” taints that claim with a bit of irony.[1]

Gregory of Nyssa (circa 350 AD) wrote an essay on the possible meanings of “cannot” taken from various locations in Scripture and general literature.
A snippet from “Reading Scripture with the Church Father’s” by Christopher A. Hall

“Norris notes that Gregory understood that “the meaning of a word in Scripture can also be enhanced by know what options exist for the means the word in everyday language as well as in the Bible.” The example Norris supplies from Gregory’s work concerns the Eunomian controversy …

The Eunomians’ denial of the equality of the Father and the Son was based on texts such as John 5:19. Here Jesus teaches that “the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing.” The Eunomians interpreted Jesus’ inability to act on his own as a sign of his inequality with and submission to the Father. 

Gregory knew, however that to “understand what ‘can do nothing’ means, the interpreter must as what ‘cannot’ means.” Gregory responded with a detailed study of what “cannot” means and does not means, an analysis largely base on how “cannot” functions in every day language. Norris has identified at least five aspects of Gregory’s exegesis of “cannot.” 

  1. It can “refer to an ability at a particular time in relation to a specific object. Young children are not accomplished athletes, but they may grow to be such. A little puppy with closed eyes certainly cannot fight, but later he may both see and attack.” 
  2. “Cannot can refer to “something that is usually true but is not true from a particular perspective.” For example, Jesus speaks of a city “on a hill that cannot be hidden.” Does he mean that it could never be hidden” No. “If one stands with a higher hill in the line of sight, the city cannot be seen.” 
  3. “Cannot can refer to “something unthinkable” or not sensible. “At the celebration of a wedding feast, the friends of the bridegroom ‘cannot’ fast while everyone around them is celebrating.” 
  4. “Cannot” may “designate a lack of will as when Jesus ‘could not’ do miracles because of the people’s lack of faith. Jesus did no mighty works in his home town, but that did not mean that he had no power to do them.” 
  5. “Cannot” can refer to things that are simply “impossible,” such “God not existing … or something non-existent existing, or two plus two equaling ten, not four.”

    In this way Gregory compared Scripture with Scripture and showed a wide range of possible meaning for “cannot.”

    [1] “Oord argued that “because Pentecostals and Charismatics claim to be in direct communication with God, they should find a sophisticated philosophical basis in process philosophy for their claim” (Oord 2006:254). “According to Oord, Pentecostalism needs process thought for philosophical justification.” Reichard, Joshua D. 2010. Pentecost, Process, And Power: A Critical Comparison of Concursus in Operational Pentecostal-Charismatic Theology and Philosophical Process-Relational Theology.”

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